Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Great Political Tomato Battle

Are you sick of politicians hurling insults at each other? Have you had enough of the media’s frenzied coverage of the upcoming presidential election? Do you secretly harbor a fantasy in which ignorant, lying politicians from both parties spontaneously ignite, leaving behind only a puff of sulfurous smoke?

Believe me, you are not alone. I, personally, trust zero politicians, and I have reached the point where I question whether or not this great American republic is going to last for another generation. Increasingly higher taxes, socialized medicine, unrestricted IRS and Homeland Security powers, outrageous government waste, and a continuing prohibition on drugs are just a few of the issues that the people of our country are facing today. We cannot renounce our citizenship and leave the country without giving our money to the IRS, we have to jump through hoops to exercise our 2nd Amendment rights, and many politicians feel the need to propose legislation that will keep our children from learning science in favor of religious myth, and our women from getting the medical care they need when they have been raped. The government is insidiously seeping into all areas of our personal lives, and it needs to be stopped.

Will either of the two major candidates do anything to restore our personal freedoms and reduce the amount of money the government takes from us? I doubt it. I don’t like either of my options, and I’m tired of listening to the rhetoric. So I suggest this alternative from Spain as a solution to the obnoxious squabbles and the “he said-she said” arguments. Vote “yes” if you want to see a “Great Political Tomato Fight” on CNN next week!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

It's a Dull, Dull, Dull, Dull World (Today, anyway)

The news today is dreadfully dull. Consider these “riveting” stories:

1.      Prince Harry puts nude Vegas pictures behind him and makes heartwarming speech at the London Paralympic Games.

2.      Snooki gave birth to a baby boy. (I must admit that I have no idea who Snooki is and why she’s famous.)

3.      Pussy Riot members are continuing to try to flee Russia after violating the “absolutely no guaranteed free speech” laws. There are still 14 band members attempting to get out of the country before they are arrested and thrown in jail.

4.      The lion spotted by several people in St. Osyth in southeast England turned out to be a large Maine Coon cat. Yes, it was someone’s pet.

5.      A tourist in Iceland was reported missing from her tour bus, and then helped search for herself. She had changed clothes at a stop, and no one on the bus recognized her in the new clothes. Apparently, she didn’t recognize herself from the description of the missing woman, and so she kindly volunteered to participate in the search. You would have thought that the bus driver could have counted the number of people on the bus to see that he wasn’t missing anyone, but it’s so easy to Monday-morning quarterback, isn’t it?

6.      The GOP convention has begun in Tampa. So far, no one has reported that a politician has made any remarks that are stupider than the normal garbage they’ve been spouting for years. Since we already know that Mitt Romney will be selected as the presidential nominee, the whole convention is kind of a let-down. Perhaps this 19th century convention convention has reached the end of its usefulness and should be eliminated. Just think of the goodwill gained if the parties stopped annoying the American public.

          7.      From my personally dull world:
               ·    It’s raining in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
               ·    Wreck was groomed today.
               ·    I will be meeting Chris for lunch after his noon meeting and then going to work, where I will do my best to help college students improve their writing skills.
               ·    Dinner tonight is homemade chicken stew, which is already cooking away in the crock pot. If you care, each serving is 477 calories.
               ·    Yawn. I think I’ll go take a nap until lunchtime. Have a nice - even if slightly dull - day!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

History of the English Language in 100 Words

I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness.                          ---Mark Twain
David Crystal, a linguistics professor in Wales, recently decided to tell the history of the English language in 100 words. Now that sounds like quite a task, especially when you take into consideration that English has been spoken in some form or other since the 5th century. That’s a long time!

First, Professor Crystal broke down English history into segments: Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, and Modern English. Then, he chose words that were linguistically significant. These words represent changes in cultural norms, regional dialects, genres, technology, and religion. From the first known word “Roe” to the most recent addition “Twittersphere,” Crystal’s list gives us fascinating insight into how the English language has evolved.

THE LIST (The comments briefly explain why the word was chosen.)
1 Roe The first word (5th c)
2 Lea Naming places (8th c)
3 And An early abbreviation (8th c)
4 Loaf An unexpected origin (9th c)
5 Out Changing grammar (9th c)
6 Street A Latin loan (9th c)
7 Mead A window into history (9th c)
8 Merry A dialect survivor (9th c)
9 Riddle Playing with language (10th c)
10 What An early exclamation (10th c)
11 Bone-house A word-painting (10th c)
12 Brock A Celtic arrival (10th c)
13 English The language named (10th c)
14 Bridegroom Popular etymology (11th c)
15 Arse An impolite word (11th c)
16 Swain A poetic expression (12th c)
17 Pork An elegant word (13th c)
18 Chattels A legal word (13th c)
19 Dame A form of address (13th c)
20 Skirt A word doublet (13th c)
21 Jail Or Gaol? Competing words (13th c)
22 Take away A phrasal verb (13th c)
23 Cuckoo A sound-symbolic word (13th c)
24 C--- A taboo word (13th c)
25 Wicked A radical alteration (13th c)
26 Wee A Scottish contribution (14th c)
27 Grammar A surprising link (14th c)
28 Valentine First name into word (14th c)
29 Egg A dialect choice (14th c)
30 Royal Word triplets (14th c)
31 Money A productive idiom (14th c)
32 Music A spelling in evolution (14th c)
33 Taffeta An early trade word (14th c)
34 Information(s) (Un)countable nouns (14th c)
35 Gaggle A collective noun (15th c)
36 Doable A mixing of languages (15th c)
37 Matrix A word from Tyndale (16th c)
38 Alphabet Talking about writing (16th c)
39 Potato A European import (16th c)
40 Debt A spelling reform (16th c)
41 Ink-horn A classical food (16th c)
42 Dialect Regional variation (16th c)
43 Bodgery Word-coiners (16th c)
44 Undeaf A word from Shakespeare (16th c)
45 Skunk An early Americanism (17th c)
46 Shibboleth A word from the King James Bible (17th c)
47 Bloody Emerging swear word (17th c)
48 Lakh A word from India (17th c)
49 Fopdoodle A lost word (17th c)
50 Billion A confusing ambiguity (17th c)
51 Yogurt A choice of spelling (17th c)
52 Gazette A taste of journalese (17th c)
53 Tea A social word (17th c)
54 Disinterested A confusable (17th c)
55 Polite A matter of manners (17th c)
56 Dilly-dally A reduplicating word (17th c)
57 Rep A clipping (17th c)
58 Americanism A new nation (18th c)
59 Edit A back-information (18th c)
60 Species Classifying things (18th c)
61 Ain’t Right and wrong (18th c)
62 Trek A word from Africa (19th c)
63 Hello Progress through technology (19th c)
64 Dragsman Thieves’ cant (19th c)
65 Lunch U or non-U (19th c)
66 Dude A cool usage (19th c)
67 Brunch A portmanteau word (19th c)
68 Dinkum A word from Australia (19th c)
69 Mipela Pidgin English (19th c)
70 Schmooze A Yiddishism (19th c)
71 OK Debatable origins (19th c)
72 Ology Suffix into word (19th c)
73 Y’all A new pronoun (19th c)
74 Speech-craft An Anglo-Saxonism (19th c)
75 DNA Scientific terminology (20th c)
76 Garage A pronunciation problem(20th c)
77 Escalator Word into name into word (20th c)
78 Robot A global journey (20th c)
79 UFO Alternative forms (20th c)
80 Watergate Place-name into word (20th c)
81 Doublespeak Weasel words (20th c)
82 Doobry Useful nonsense (20th c)
83 Blurb A moment of arrival (20th c)
84 Strine A comic effect (20th c)
85 Alzheimer’s Surname into word (20th c)
86 Grand Money slang (20th c)
87 Mega Prefix into word (20th c)
88 Gotcha A non-standard spelling (20th c)
89 PC Being politically correct (20th c)
90 Bagonise A nonce-word (20th c)
91 Webzine An internet compound (20th c)
92 App A killer abb (20th c)
93 Cherry-picking Corporate speak (20th c)
94 LOL Netspeak (20th c)
95 Jazz Word of the century (20th c)
96 Sudoku A modern loan (21st c)
97 Muggle A fiction word (21st c)
98 Chillax A fashionable blend (21st c)
99 Unfriend A new age (21st c)
100 Twittersphere Future directions? (21st c)

Read more about this list at:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Toothpaste, Part Deux

“Hey, look at this article. This guy is even more nuts than you are!”

“Excuse me?” I frowned and glared at Chris. “I am not nuts!”

Chris laughed. “If you say so. But read this anyway.”

It was an article about ways to get all of the toothpaste out of the tube. I’ve written about this topic before, and Chris was actually right (but please don’t tell him I said so). It makes me nuts when he throws away his toothpaste tube when there is obviously several days worth of toothpaste left.

Cut Open Your Toothpaste Tube To Scoop Out the Remains by Shep McAllister

If you've exhausted the binder clip and counter squeezing methods to coax extra toothpaste out of a tube, you can try cutting off the back of the container to fish out the remains.
Just as you would use a chip to scoop up the last bit of salsa from the side of a bowl, you can use the toothbrush to gather any remaining paste stuck to the sides of the tube. It may only be enough for one or two brushings, but it could still save you from having to drive to the pharmacy late at night before bed.
Anyway, after reading the above article from LifeHacker, I have learned one more way to get that last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. I’m so happy! And perhaps a little bit nuts.

Obviously, this whole toothpaste thing has made people nuts for years. This news article is from 1937.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

American Public Education: Epic Fail or Remarkable Success?

When it comes to the question of whether or not the American education system does what it is supposed to do, there’s no easy answer. First of all, we have to decide what we want our schools to do. What should be the final result of 12 years of public school education?

Here’s my list of objectives for graduating high school students:
  • The students should be able to read English (on an 8th grade level at a minimum);
  • The students should be able to do basic mathematical computations;
  • The students should be able to speak and write in standard business English clearly and effectively;
  • The students should have a working knowledge of modern technology;
  • The students should understand basic science concepts (which include health issues);
  • The students should know how the American government and economy function.

 If a student masters these objectives, I would expect him/her to be able to function effectively as an adult. One would expect these adults to be able to read and understand an employment contract, use a computer, communicate ideas effectively, calculate a 15% tip, understand global warming, and know the function of the Electoral College.

Okay, now that we’ve decided what we want our public schools to accomplish, we can try to determine whether or not the American education system does what it is supposed to do. I propose looking at some of the headlines from today’s news and judging the effectiveness of education from these (admittedly limited) viewpoints.

First, let’s take a look at this article from Kentucky:
“Kentucky GOP lawmakers say ACT exam treats evolution as fact, ignores creationism”

Basically, the problem that these politicians have is that there are “questions on an end-of-course biology exam that…seems to require the teaching of evolution as a fact instead of a theory.” Unfortunately, I see this as an epic fail for the education these politicians received at their local public schools. All students should have been taught the scientific method and they should understand the difference between “fact” and “theory.” Facts stay the same, while theories are changeable as more evidence is discovered that proves or disproves the theory. Theories, by their very nature, are not “the truth,” because there might yet be evidence found that disproves them. Evolution is a theory, because scientists are routinely adding to the body of knowledge about the subject. As far as I can tell, there really is no way of teaching evolution as “fact.” These politicians were obviously absent from high school on the day the scientific method was taught. Sigh….

Next, watch the video below:
“Mars Rover’s ‘Voice’ Captured During Nail-Biting Landing”

Now isn’t that just the most remarkable human intellectual accomplishment you’ve seen in quite a while? The scientists who worked on the Curiosity project obviously got the most from their public school educations. They learned basic science, mathematics, and communication skills. They learned from past experiments with similar projects, and they designed a system that worked, and worked well. This is an epic success for American public education. (Note: Credit must be given to the colleges these scientists attended, as well.) If you’re a teacher, feel free to pat yourself on the back. These scientists couldn’t have achieved this incredible feat of ingenuity without the foundation you helped them build.

So does the American education system do what we need it to do? I guess the answer is…sometimes.

Super article on fact versus theory:  http://www.johnpratt.com/items/astronomy/science.html

Kentucky article: http://www.courier-journal.com/viewart/20120815/NEWS0101/308150079/Kentucky-GOP-lawmakers-say-ACT-exam-treats-evolution-fact-ignores-creationism?odyssey=nav%7Chead

Wonderful pictures and video about Curiosity and other space-related issues: http://www.space.com

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Chuckle for my Teacher Friends

It doesn't matter what subject you teach, every one of you has felt this way.  At some point in your career, you have all had to bite your lip, tongue, cheek, thumb, etc. to keep from saying something snarky like, "Did you know that you just said that out loud?" or "That's absurd!" However, as teachers, we learn early on to say exactly what the teacher in this cartoon spouts. "That's an interesting idea. Can you tell us more about it?"  And therein lies the reason you see us huddled together on Fridays at 4 in our local Mexican joints, sucking down Margaritas. Believe it or not, being a teacher isn't all fun and games.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Human Evolution: Not a Linear Path

Scientists in Kenya recently discovered the skull of a person of the species Homo rudolfensis who lived approximately 1.85 million years ago. This person lived at the same time as Homo erectus and Homo habilus, according to fossil records. While this might not mean much to you and me, to scientists it means a change in thinking about human evolution. Essentially, it takes human evolution from a nice clean linear line to a pattern of developing prototypes that changed and died out according to how well they adapted to environmental conditions.

This is not particularly surprising, though. Fossils of dinosaurs, birds, reptiles, and non-human mammals all exhibit this pattern of trial-and-error evolution. It is hubris to think that only humans were exempt for some reason from what we already knew about evolution in general. In light of this new fossil evidence, it’s time to “man up” and admit that we are just one little part of an evolutionary system that began well before Homo sapiens developed on this planet.

Discoveries like these lead me to wonder where human evolution is currently heading. Physically, we now have longer life-spans, decreased infant mortality rates, and are taller than our predecessors on average. Intellectually, we have learned to cure illnesses, to ponder philosophical abstracts, and to use machines to decrease the amount of time we have to spend working simply to survive. Yes, life is good for Homo sapiens in the 21st century.

But where are we going? It is extremely difficult to determine an evolutionary future for humans when we’re sitting right in the middle of it. In terms of millions of years of evolution, “right now” is a tiny blip on the radar screen. I believe that all we can say for sure is that the evolution of the Homo sapiens species is far from complete. Human beings are capable of great deeds and vile atrocities. Will we adapt to get along with each other or will we destroy the species and allow evolution to start anew? What do you think?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Back to School Writing Tips

I love these writing tips because they're so easy to remember. Of course, there are times when you'll want to use alliteration, hyperbole & comparisons, aren't there? Writing good...uh, well...is a tough job, but somebody has to do it. 

Happy Back to School!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Poor Grammar Limits Job Prospects

This article from LifeHacker says exactly what I have been lecturing students about for years – grammar and punctuation really do make a difference! It is worth learning which their/they’re/there to use, and you do appear less intelligent to a reader when you use “student’s” when you mean the plural “students.” Grammar and punctuation are important! I am definitely going to hang a copy of this article on the board in the college’s writing lab. --Vicki

I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.

If you misuse a comma or mix up "your and you're," don't expect to get hired byiFixit's Kyle Wiens. He's not the only stickler—a growing number of employers are adopting a zero tolerance approach to grammar. That means one mistake could cost you the job, even if you're otherwise qualified.
If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.
Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss's more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar "stickler." And, like Truss—author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves—I have a "zero tolerance approach" to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.
Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have "zero tolerance." She thinks that people who mix up their itses "deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave," while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job—even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.
Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can't distinguish between "to" and "too," their applications go into the bin.
Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world's largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we've made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.
But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn't make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can't tell the difference between their, there, and they're.
Good grammar makes good business sense—and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn't in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.
On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?
Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use "it's," then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.
Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing—like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose. Great programmers are more than just code monkeys; according to Stanford programming legendDonald Knuth they are "essayists who work with traditional aesthetic and literary forms." The point: programming should be easily understood by real human beings—not just computers.
And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil's in the details. In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything.
I hire people who care about those details. Applicants who don't think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren't important. And I guarantee that even if other companies aren't issuing grammar tests, they pay attention to sloppy mistakes on résumés. After all, sloppy is as sloppy does.
That's why I grammar test people who walk in the door looking for a job. Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they're detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.

Kyle Wiens is CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company dedicated to helping manufacturers publish amazing documentation.
If you're interested in improving your writing skills, check out Harvard's Guide to Better Business Writing.